Atheism+: the new New Atheists

This new movement has an energy that makes it hard to ignore.

Let me introduce you to Atheism+, the nascent movement that might be the most exciting thing to hit the world of unbelief since Richard Dawkins teamed up with Christopher Hitchens to tell the world that God was a Delusion and, worse than that, Not Great.  

Less than a week old in its current form, Atheism+ is the brainchild of Jen McCreight, a Seattle-based biology postgrad and blogger at the secularist Freethought network. She has called for a "new wave" of atheism on that "cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime." 

On one level, this is just the logical culmination of the huge upsurge in interest prompted by the so-called "New Atheists" and the growth over the last few years of a recognisable community or movement based around ideas of atheism, scientific scepticism and a progressive political agenda. While atheism is, by definition, no more or less than a non-belief in God, in practice it clusters with a variety of other positions, from pro-choice to campaigns against homeopathy. People who espouse "liberal atheism" as it might be called, oppose religion for political as well as philosophical reasons, just as the forces of religion seem to line up - though of course not exclusively - behind seemingly unconnected issues such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage and, in the US, gun-control.  

Atheism+ is, at its most basic, an attempt wrap things together more formally, to create a movement that prioritises issues of equality  and does so from an explicitly non-religious perspective. Some would say that such a philosophy already exists in the form of humanism. Others prefer the label Skeptic. Atheism+, however, seeks to capitalise on the sense of identity that has grown up around the word "atheism" during the past few years. One supporter of the idea, Greta Christina, celebrates the term as "a slap in the face that wakes people up." 

In this early phase Atheism+ is fired by anger as much as by as idealism. And, at least initially, much of this anger is directed inward towards the world of atheism itself.

Any community, new or old, has its tensions, and in the past year the atheist/sceptical community has been rocked by a divisive and increasingly bad-tempered debate over sexism and, more generally, a sense that the dominant voices have tended to be white, male and middle-class.  On the one hand, there have been suggestions that atheism and scepticism are philosophies disproportionately attractive to men. Indeed, the stereotype of the atheist as white, intellectually overconfident male - as Richard Dawkins - has long been a favourite among religious apologists. More seriously, there are definite feelings of exclusion, especially on the part of younger women.  

A number of incidents have served to crystallise the sense that all is not right in the world of unbelief.  Most notoriously, there was "Elevatorgate", an late-night incident in a lift during an atheist conference in Dublin during which the blogger Rebecca Watson was propositioned. Her subsequent public complaint about the man's behaviour and sexual harassment within the Skeptic movement drew criticism from Richard Dawkins himself and fuelled an ugly flame war.  She received, and continues to receive, rape and death threats.  

McCreight (it rhymes with "right") has her own experience to draw on.  She first came to prominence as the creator of 2010's "Boobquake", a satirical response to claims by an Iranian ayatollah that women who dressed immodestly were responsible for earthquakes.  McCreight wondered if encouraging women to wear tight t-shirts on a certain day would lead to a noticeable increase in seismic activity worldwide.  It didn't, though it did produce a small earthquake in parts of the skeptical community, in the form of a debate about whether such a stunt was compatible with feminism.

For McCreight personally, the "experiment" had an ambiguous outcome:

I’ve always considered myself a feminist, but I used to be one of those teenagers who assumed the awesome ladies before me had solved everything. But Boobquake made me wake up. What I originally envisioned as an empowering event about supporting women’s freedoms and calling out dangerous superstitious thinking devolved into “Show us your tits!”

McCreight recalls receiving unsolicited sexual invitations and, when she appeared in public, gratuitous comments about her appearance. It all made her feel that atheism was a "boys' club". It might welcome "a young, not-hideous woman who ... I made them look diverse" but  "rescinds its invitation once they realize you’re a rabble-rousing feminist." A movement that claimed to be rationalistic and against prejudice was not simply replicating the sexism of wider society, she felt, but actually magnified it.  Whenever she wrote or spoke about feminism she received hundreds of insulting and hateful comments.  Atheism had become - perhaps it always was - a bolthole for misogyny.  Worse, she wrote, "I don’t feel safe as a woman in this community – and I feel less safe than I do as a woman in science, or a woman in gaming, or hell, as a woman walking down the fucking sidewalk."

The first item on the Atheism+ agenda, then, is a cleansing one. McCreight herself says: "We need to recognize that there’s still room for self-improvement and to address the root of why we’ve been having these problems in atheism and skepticism." Greta Christina has gone so far as to devise a checklist of goals to which atheist organisations should aspire, including anti-harassment policies and ensuring diversity among both members and invited speakers. "To remember that not all atheists look like Richard Dawkins."

That sounds like, at least party, a negative programme - "getting rid of the garbage". Yet the name - or at least the symbol - is pleasingly double-edged. "Atheism plus", the natural reading, implies incompleteness: that other, associated principles need to be added to the core idea to produce a rounded philosophy. But it can also be read as "Atheism positive", going beyond the mere negation of belief. Time will tell whether McCreight's initiative leads to permanent changes in the atheist and sceptical movement, or to the formation of a new and distinct nexus of atheism and progressive politics, or is soon forgotten. But I'd bet against the latter. Whether or not the name sticks, there is an energy behind this new wave that makes it hard to ignore.

Atheism+ is a reaction against the "New Atheism" of Richard Dawkins. Photograph: Getty Images
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A rape-able sex robot makes the world more dangerous for women, not less

Eroticising a lack of consent is no answer to male sexual violence. 

On Wednesday, the Independent reported a new setting had been added to the personality range of a sex robot made by the company True Companion. Called “Frigid Farrah”, the setting allows men who own the robot to simulate rape. If you touch it in a “private area” when it is in this mode, the website explains, it will “not be appreciative of your advance”.

True Companion says the robot is not programmed to participate in a rape scenario, and the idea is “pure conjecture”. Nevertheless, the news has reopened the debate about sex robots and their relationship to consent. What does a rape-able robot say about our attitudes to consent, sex, violence and humanism? Do sex robots like Frigid Farrah eroticise and normalise male sexual aggression? Or does allowing men to “act out” these “most private sexual dreams” on inanimate objects actually make real women safer?

The idea that allowing men to “rape” robots could reduce rates of sexual violence is fundamentally flawed. Sex robot settings that eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, coupled with male aggression, risk normalising rape. It sends a message to the user that it is sexually fulfilling to violate a woman’s “No”.

It’s important to remember that rape is not a product of sexual desire. Rape is about power and domination – about violating a woman’s body and her sense of self. Raping a robot is of course preferable to raping a woman, but the fact is we need to challenge the attitudes and sense of entitlement that cause violent men to rape in the first place.

There is little evidence to back the claim that giving men sexual “outlets” reduces violence. The research that exists is focused on whether a legalised sex industry can reduce sexual assault.

Studies on Dutch “tippelzones” – spaces where soliciting is legal between certain hours – claimed the areas led to a reduction in sexual violence. However, the research lacked precise data on incidents of sexual violence and abuse, and the fact that sex workers themselves can be victims. As a result, it wasn’t possible to determine exactly how the number of rapes and assaults fell in the population at large.

Similar claims made by social scientist Catherine Hakim also failed to prove a causal link between legalised prostitution and reduced levels of sexual violence – again, because low reporting means a lack of accurate data.

Other research claims that access to the sex industry can in fact increase incidents of sexual violence. A 2013 report by Garner and Elvines for Rape Crisis South London argued that an analysis of existing research found “an overall significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women in non-experimental studies”.

Meanwhile, a 2000 paper by Neil Malamuth, T Addison, and J Koss suggested that, when individuals considered at high risk of acting sexually aggressively are studied, levels of aggression are four times higher among frequent consumers of pornography.

However, just as the research fails to find a causal link between access to the sex industry and reducing violence, there is no research proving a causal link between violent pornography and gender-based violence.

Instead, we have to look at the ethical and moral principles in an industry that creates models of women for men to orgasm into. Sex robots are, at their heart, anti-humanist. They replace women with plastic and holes. They create a world for their owners where women’s voices and demands and desires and pleasures – and right to say no – are absent.

That should trouble us – we are creating products for men which send a message that the best woman is a compliant and silent one. That the best woman is one who lies back and “likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike”, to quote the True Companion website, who is “always ready to talk and play” but whose voice you can turn off whenever you want.

“By transferring one of the great evils of humanity from the real to the artificial, sex robots simply feed the demon of sexism,” says Professor Alan Winfield of the Bristol Robotics Lab. “Some might say, 'What’s the problem – a sex robot is just metal and plastic – where’s the harm?' But a 'fembot' is a sexualised representation of a woman or girl, which not only invites abusive treatment but demands it. A robot cannot give consent – thus only deepening the already chronic and dangerous objectification of real women and girls.”

What research does tell us is that there is a clear link between violence and the perpetrator’s ability to dehumanise their victims. That, and a setting designed to eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, suggest that Frigid Farrah will have no impact on reducing sexual assault. Rather, it creates a space where rape and violence is normalised and accepted.

Instead of shrugging our shoulders at this sexualisation of male violence, we should be taking action to end the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies. That starts by saying that rape is not an inevitable part of our society, and the danger of rape cannot simply be neutralised by a robot.

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She was previously writer-in-residence at Spike Island.